With warm temps in the East, ski resorts face challenging winter

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This may become the Year of the Snow-making Machine.

Those devices were doing a pretty good job of keeping the East Coast ski resorts in business in the early part of the season, with Mother Nature not doing her part.

While the New York Times reported on Dec. 16 that Alpine ski resorts were struggling to stay open in the warmest winter the Alps have seen in 1,250 years, things appeared less dire in the U.S. Resort spokesmen from Maine to New York reported good, though spring-like, ski conditions and relatively few cancellations at resorts for the Christmas holiday, although rooms were still available at some properties.

Nevertheless, it can be a challenge to get skiers in the mood if they're experiencing temperatures in the 50-degree range a week before Christmas.

Resort operators responded to that challenge by hosting special events or advertising to counter perceptions that the slopes are snowless.

Martha Wilson, public relations manager for New Hampshire's Bretton Woods ski area and the Mount Washington Hotel, said the resort, with 13 of 101 trails open, is seeing a "steady stream" of skiers but that the hotel's bookings are "down a little" for Christmas when the hotel is typically full.

For later dates, bookings are down some, but it's hard to judge because so many travelers book close to arrival, she said.

"It is not what we want, but we are in pretty good shape," said Wilson.

Alex Kaufman, director of communications for Sunday River in Maine, said the resort was making up for a lack of snowfall with man-made snow, but bookings at the accommodations were "not where they would [ordinarily] be."

Although Sunday River benefits from a reputation for snow-making, Kaufman said, it remains a key challenge to get that word out more widely.

Chris Lenois, communications manager for Mount Snow in Vermont, said the ski area had "top-to-bottom terrain," thanks to man-made snow. He said that bookings had been good, but not great.

"We are missing goals," Lenois said.

The biggest challenge, he said, is changing the perception that skiing is not available during a season of little snow.

The American Ski Co., owner of Mount Snow and Sunday River as well as Killington in Vermont and Sugarloaf in Maine, has placed recently taken videos and photos of skiers on its Web pages to make the point that skiers are on the slopes in the Northeast.

Killington, with 41 of 200 trails open, was gearing up snow-making as temperatures began to fall just before Christmas, in order to increase its available terrain.

Although bookings have been "very strong," there was still availability for the holiday, said Tom Horrocks, the resort's communications manager.

Sugarloaf, meanwhile, was making snow 24 hours a day. The resort was "close to where we want to be," with some hotel availability going into Christmas, said Bill Swain, communications manager.

Sandy Caligiore, director of communications for the Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid, N.Y., cheerily reported, "We're doing snow dances here."

No doubt they're dancing in front of the snow-making machines. While the area villages have no snow, nine of 75 trails are open on Whiteface Mountain, near Lake Placid. Caligiore said skiers could descend from the top of Little Whiteface, which gives them 2,500 vertical feet for skiing and snowboarding.

Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, offers other winter activities: Visitors can ice skate, go bobsledding and use the luge run, all of which are refrigerated, Caligiore said.

In any case, he said that bookings at the mountain, including those for ski classes and child care, were up 24% for the holidays compared with 2005, partly because of the variety of activities and because Whiteface's facilities for children have been expanded.

When the talk turns to alternative activities, operators of cross-country facilities relate because they have little else to fall back on when there's a lack of snowfall.

At the Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Chittenden, Vt., most holiday bookings held firm for the inn, said Diane Dickerman, director of marketing and public relations. The property, which offers cross-country skiing only, can keep these customers when the weather doesn't cooperate because their visits are about the family holiday as much as about skiing. Some go to nearby Killington to hit the slopes.

Staff was planning indoor and outdoor activities. The horse-drawn sleigh, which has tires as well as runners, is operating.

For Europe business, Dan Sherman, the director of marketing communications for Ski.com, said sales were "kind of flat," such as bookings to Chamonix, in the French Alps.

A lack of snow, and a weak dollar, both have contributed to flat sales, he said.

There is plenty of snow in the West. Anna Olson, communications director at Wyoming's Jackson Hole resort, said the area had gotten 30 inches of new snow by the middle of December. "When the snow comes, the phones ring," Olsen said. "And they're ringing."

But do the resorts in the Rockies benefit when the snow doesn't fall in the East? 

"Historically," Olson said, "the industry does well when all get their fair share of snow."

The Rockies may benefit if skiers from the East Coast head West for snow, but "it is not black and white," she said.

Skiers may look around at the lack of snow in their neighborhood, forget winter and head to a beach, said Olsen.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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